Missing P.J. O’Rourke

Having a Christmas Day deadline is weird enough. Having it come on the weekend following the Carlos Correa deal-or-no-deal/deal-or-deal-held-up hoopla is weirder. (Is it his ancient lower right leg surgery? His once-balky back? All the above? None of the above?) Having it come the first weekend after Trevor Bauer had his unprecedented 324-game suspension for domestic abuse reduced to his still-unprecendented (and still damn well deserved) time served (194 games) is weirdest.

Christmas is a day of birth. But one of my Christmas gifts has me pondering death. Specifically, the February 2022 death of P.J. O'Rourke. A country that laughs like Figaro that it might not weep lost its greatest sociopolitical satirist, the funniest writer America yielded since H.L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, Goodman Ace, Jim Murray, and Tom Wolfe. It's not that I needed reminders, with most of O'Rourke's 21 books in my own home library. But a posthumously-published omnibus was gifted me for Christmas, The Funny Stuff: The Official P.J. O'Rourke Quotationary and Riffapedia.

He wasn't a sportswriter, but he riffed, rolled, and rolled his eyes upon sport now and then. "Yankees," he wrote, extracted here from 1987's Republican Party Reptile, "are serious about spending money. And they give advice at length on the subject." But just when you thought you were reading an observation upon the ogres of the American League East, he continues: "And they're especially forthcoming about what you should have paid for your house. 'You know, that place sold for eight thousand in 1976'." Oops. He wasn't talking about Yankee Stadium, either.

"It's better to spend money like there's no tomorrow than to spend tonight like there's no money." Before you assume that's the suddenly-exhumed watchword of Mets owner Steve Cohen, you note it's extracted from O'Rourke's 1983 book, Modern Manners. "Bluntness, especially when combined with obscenity or prejudice, can be very handy in arguments." Nope, not one of the ten rules for arguing with umpires, never mind that umpires can be as vulgar as managers in the heat of the blown call. It's from the same book.

And it continues: "Use strong language to take the politics out of your argument and make it personal again by saying to whoever disagrees with your position, 'F*ck you'." Switch "baseball" for "politics" and you have, in one line, the summation of half the career of Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver. ("That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places," the late umpire Steve Palermo once said of Weaver. "And that was on days I didn't throw him out.")

O'Rourke did have a thing for one sport, seemingly. It seemed to emanate from his thing for the number one tool of its trade before he decided this sport was tolerable:

Oh, Jesus, that stupendous noise, that beautiful and astounding sound — not the flatulent blasting of the drag strip or the bucket-of-puppies squeal of tiny Grand Prix engines, but a full-bore iron-block stoke-out American symphony of monster pandemonium. Exhaust notes so low they shake the lungs like rubber bell clappers in the rib cage and shrieks of valves and gears and push rods wailing in the clear and terrifying soprano of the banshee's wail — I could not leave my ear plugs in, it was too beautiful.

Trust me, he was not describing a postseason baseball crowd or whole host cities on Super Bowl Sunday. Further hint: it's extracted for The Funny Stuff from his 2009 book, Driving Like Crazy.

O'Rourke also had a bit of a thing for a sport over which Hall of Famer Ted Williams had his only non-baseball sporting obsession. Williams loved to fish and divided his obsession between fly fishing and deep-sea angling. So did O'Rourke divide his occasional attention, as extracted here from his 1995 collection, Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut.

First, deep-sea: "Imagine a serious, highly-competitive, physically-demanding outdoor sport that you can play while sitting in a chair drinking beer. Deep-sea fishing is as close as a middle-aged man gets to heaven — unless he's not watching his cholesterol." Now, fly fishing: "Here's a guy standing in cold water up to his liver, throwing the world's most expensive clothesline at trees. A full two-thirds of his time is spent untangling stuff, which he could be doing in the comfort of his own home with old shoelaces if he wanted. The whole business costs like sin and requires heavier clothing. Furthermore, it's conducted in the middle of blackfly season. Cast and swat. Cast and swat."

Hall of Fame outfielder Richie Ashburn once said of Houston's pre-Astrodome ballpark, Colt Stadium, "This is the only park in the league where the women wear insect repellent instead of perfume." O'Rourke on fly fishing makes you think it's the only sport in the country where the men apply Off! before they apply their underwear when dressing. Just don't get him started on endurance sports. Oops. Writing the aforesaid Modern Manners got him started: "Endurance sports provide people with the pain they seem to be missing from modern dentistry and health care." (And some Hall of Fame elections, though certainly not Ashburn's.)

I was a regular reader of American Consequences, the online journal O'Rourke co-founded and edited until his death. And in late 2018, I had the honour of receiving a small taste of his much-remarked (in the obituaries) kindness.

He wrote a "Letter From the Editor" after the 2018 mid-term elections, called "Demented Politics, Lunatic Markets": "If the 116th Congress were the World Series and [then-president Donald] Trump was the umpire, he'd send both teams to the showers so that he could be the pitcher and the batter and throw every strike and hit every home run. And he'd also want to be the only hot dog vendor in the stadium."

Now, that was an offering I simply couldn't leave unremarked: "Longtime fan, first time writing about an AC article. Reality check: If Congress were the World Series and President Tweety the umpire, the Series would have been the Baltimore Orioles against the San Diego Padres in Ebbets Field. And Tweety would have pitched, caught, homered, owned the concessions, named himself the Series MVP, and declared the Giants and the Dodgers had damn well better move back to Harlem and Flatbush and start building Edsels again. Yours cordially..."

And that turned out to be a remark O'Rourke couldn't leave unremarked himself: "Jeff, I bow before your superior mastery of the sports metaphor!"

Thus spake the man who once described polo as "a combination of rodeo trick riding, mounted golf, horse soccer, rugby on four legs, and the Super Bowl played with thousand-pound running backs." I accepted his bowing before my superior mastery before I read the book from which that polo description is extracted (2018's None of My Business), and I accept it again after perusing The Funny Stuff.

Wherever you are in the Elysian Fields, P.J., you blew a beauty of an opportunity, alas. Consecrated by you as a superior master of the sports metaphor, I'd have told you — you who once wrote, wisely, "If government were a product, selling it would be illegal" — that you could have called it horse hockey and gotten away with it.

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